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My Kingdom For A Horse

September 16, 2012

“And thus I clothe my naked villany
With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” Shakespeare, Richard III (Act 1 Scene 3)

There seems to be no getting away from Richard III right now. Anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s play Richard III will remember him as one of the great villains. A scheming hunchback who is willing to do anything and kill anyone to get on the throne. Even going so far as to kill his young nephews, Richard and Edward, the Princes in the Tower. In Shakespeare’s version of history it is eventually the heroic Henry Tudor who puts an end to Richard and assumes the throne as Henry VII.
Of course there are plenty of historians who have had their doubts about this version of Richard. Shakespeare certainly wasn’t above embellishing the truth if it made for good drama and he was also writing at a time when Elizabeth 1 was on the throne. It’s not like she would have taken kindly to anyone casting doubts on the heroic legacy of her grandfather. Any sources Shakespeare had access to also would probably have been overwhelmingly in favour of Henry VII and very happy to portray Richard as the villain. Richard may not have been the homicidal villain he was made out to be.
What can be known for certain about Richard is that he was the last of the Plantagenet dynasty. When his brother Edward IV died in April 1483, Richard was named Lord Protector until his nephew Edward could be crowned king. However when it was publicly declared that young Edward and his brother Richard were illegitimate because of doubts regarding the legality of their parents marriage, their uncle Richard was declared king. Not long afterwards the two boys stopped appearing in public. Whether Richard was really responsible for their death will probably never be known. Illegitimate or not, they could have become the focus of any rebellions against his rule. This was a turbulent period in English history, known as the War of the Roses. The two rival branches of the Plantagenet dynasty had been fighting on and off since 1455 for control of the English throne. There was still a lot of unrest and even if Richard felt he was the rightful king there would always be those who believed otherwise. It was in August 1485 that a rebellion led by Henry Tudor (later Henry VII) defeated Richard III. Richard died at the Battle of Bosworth field, the last English king to die in battle. Richard’s naked body was thrown over the back of a horse and displayed throughout the streets, before being buried at Greyfriars Church, Leicester. Henry had to make sure Richard wouldn’t become a martyr and his burial place a shrine.

Portrait of Richard III

A few weeks ago, a group of archaeologists from  University of Leicester Archaeological Services, and with the support of Leicester City Council and the Richard III society, set out to find the burial site. The Greyfriars church was demolished during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VII and in modern times had become a car park. After the archaeologists located the remains of the church they then set out to discover the remains of Richard III. They found the complete skeleton of a male showing severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine), a major head wound, and an arrowhead lodged in his spine. The scoliosis wasn’t pronounced enough to make Richard a hunchback but would have meant one shoulder was higher than the other. A DNA sample was taken from the remains and will be compared with descendants of Richard’s family, now living in Canada.

Of course if the remains do belong to Richard, then it raises a number of questions. What should be done with the remains? Should they stay in Leicester? Should they go to London? Or should they be placed in York Minster where Richard had originally asked to be buried? Should it be a state funeral? And what sort of religious dedication should take place?

That last one could be tricky. Since the time of Henry VIII the monarchs of England have been the head of the Church of England. But Richard III predates that and comes from a time when the English kings were still in communion with Rome. But even Catholic services have changed since the 1400s.

It does raise some interesting questions though about how you deal with a situation such as this. There certainly don’t seem to be many precedents of a the burial place of a long lost king being discovered. It makes me wonder how we in Ireland would deal with this? Our kings and high kings were certainly of a different nature but what if we uncovered the long lost grave of one of them? Would we offer a state funeral or would we care?

Does anyone know how other cultures have dealt with these sorts of occurrences?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Lucy permalink
    September 16, 2012 4:03 pm

    I didn’t know that Richard III had any living descendants! Very interesting. Sad with what lack of respect his corpse was treated, even if he may have been a violent man during a violent time.

    • September 16, 2012 10:14 pm

      I don’t know if they are direct descendants of Richard III. It’s mitochondrial DNA they need to match it with apparently so I think it would be someone descended from one of his female relatives.

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